Summary: Beware of traveling with large amounts of cash. The State of Arizona has a long history of seizing other people’s money and attempting to acquire it through civil forfeiture. Learn more about this process.
Note: this article is not legal advice, but rather general information.
Picture the scenario. Jerry, who owns a North Carolina trucking company, sees a Peterbilt truck for sale in Phoenix that he wants to buy at auction. Jerry buys a plane ticket for the auction, and flies into Phoenix Sky Harbor with nearly $40,000 in purchase money. His intent is to bid on the truck, hopefully buy it, then drive the truck back to North Carolina.
However, once Jerry lands at Sky Harbor, law enforcement immediately confronts him, interrogates him for an hour, and refuse to hear anything regarding his trucking business. They even ignore Jerry’s explanation of what model of truck he was buying. The officers present Jerry with a choice: allow the officers to seize the money (via a waiver), or be arrested. Jerry agrees to allow the offices to take the money. Jerry leaves Arizona the next day without a new truck, or his hard-earned money.
FORFEITURES IN ARIZONA
This is true story that recently happened to Jerry Johnson, an out of state businessman, whose only crime was choosing to fly with his money. For the Forbes article on Jerry, here is the link.
This is the problem with traveling with large amounts of cash: if a traveler reports money to the Transportation Security Administration, or the screeners see cash on their scanners, then they report it immediately to law enforcement.
As unfair as this sounds, the federal government, and the state of Arizona, can confiscate property, which starts the forfeiture process. These forfeitures can seize property used in a crime, even if charges have not been filed.
When a forfeiture occurs, property owners like Jerry lose all right, title and interest in the property to the government. Any contraband, proceeds, or tools used to commit a crime an be grounds to seize another’s property.
Since the 1980’s, well over $3 billion dollars worth of property has been forfeited to the federal government. This does not include Arizona, and the other states, who conduct their own forfeitures as well. In 2016, a USA Today investigation found that the DEA seized more than $209 million dollars from at least 5,200 travelers in 15 major airports over the previous decade alone.
THE FORFEITURE PROCESS
Under A.R.S. 13-4305, a law enforcement officer is allowed to seize assets either through a search warrant, or when he or she has reason to believe the property is involved in a criminal case.
Many people are often unaware that forfeitures are a civil process in Arizona, not a criminal one. In short, the government tries to take a person’s money though the civil forfeiture process, a process where the property owner does not have an absolute right to an attorney. In these types of situations, the property owner must prove their own innocence to get their property back.
There are other defenses that can be used in forfeiture cases. One includes the common carrier vehicle defense, where the vehicle cannot be seized unless the owner had knowledge that it was being used to complete a crime. A.R.S. 13-4304.
Additionally, a vehicle cannot be seized if it was used to transport drugs for sale if the sale doesn’t exceed a certain amount as listed under A.R.S. 13-3401.
PROBLEMS THAT FORFEITURES POSE FOR PROPERTY OWNERS
The problem with civil forfeitures is that the process takes a very long time, often leaving the owner without the property for that length of time. I have seen cases go on for years at a time while the forfeiture case proceeds through the court.
This hurts the property owner, especially if the owner relies on the money, or if the money is a large part of his or her life savings.
For people like Jerry, this loss of money has caused financial and business hardship. On the business end, Jerry is without a third semi-truck, forcing him to put more miles on the two existing trucks, and delaying maintenance. As he put it, “We’re basically just making ends meet right now”.
A federal judge in Albuquerque criticized the forfeiture process, stating that “there is a realistic possibility that forfeiture officials’ judgment will be distorted by the prospect of institutional gain.”
Arizona lawmakers are well aware of forfeitures, and their pitfalls. Some lawmakers even trying to reform this entire process.
Some reforms would require a criminal conviction before a forfeiture could take place, preventing the use of property waivers. The Arizona House passed this bill in February. If the bill passes the Senate, Arizona would join New Mexico, Nebraska and North Carolina in severely prohibiting civil asset forfeiture.
Other aims of reforms include a prompt civil hearing so the property owner can get their assets back without undue delay.
Forfeitures have been around before I started practicing, and I don’t believe they are going anywhere. While law enforcement groups say that civil forfeitures disrupt drug trafficking and other organized crime, the protections for innocent property owners are slim to none.
Essentially, if an officer believes that your property is connected to a particular crime, be prepared to face an extremely high burden to meet to to get your property back.
Across the nation, seizures that end up as forfeitures happen regularly. Unfortunately, many people, like Jerry, end up learning the hard way just how far the government can go in seizing your property.
Americans work hard for their money. They should not have their property stripped without being charged with a crime.
If you or your loved one have a state or federal forfeiture question, please reach out. Visit Chuck Franklin Law.com for more. We handle these cases regularly, and have vast knowledge in the area.
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